(UPI) — The president and CEO of USA Gymnastics resigned Thursday amid a widening scandal over sexual abuse allegations by dozens of athletes against dozens of coaches and a longtime doctor.
Steve Penny, who has served as the hands-on leader of the U.S. gymnastics program since 2005, said he was stepping down so the organization could focus on its future and move past the sex abuse scandal.
“It has been heartbreaking to learn of instances of abuse and it sickens me that young athletes would be exploited in such a manner,” Penny said. “My decision to step aside as CEO is solely to support the best interests of USA Gymnastics at this time.”
Penny’s resignation comes after pressure from the U.S. Olympic Committee, which sought his ouster, USA Today reported.
Several lawsuits have been filed against USA Gymnastics by former athletes, most of whom were young girls at the time, alleging they were abused at the organization’s training facility in Michigan. At the center of the allegations is Dr. Larry Nassar, the national team doctor from 1996 to 2015. More than 80 gymnasts have alleged sexual abuse by Nassar during that time.
Nassar faces a 22-count indictment in Michigan charging him with sexual abuse of children and possession of child pornography. He also faces federal sex abuse charges.
In all, the Indianapolis Star has documented more than 360 instances in which gymnasts in the national program said they were sexually abused by coaches over the last 20 years. The allegations are contained in court documents the Star obtained after a lengthy court battle.
The organization released a statement Thursday after Penny’s resignation, pledging to do more to protect its athletes.
“The board believes this change in leadership will help USA Gymnastics face its current challenges and implement solutions to move the organization forward in promoting a safe environment for its athletes at all levels,” USA Gymnastics chairman Paul Parilla said.
Penny had been supported by several high-profile figures in gymnastics, including Mary Lou Retton, the first U.S. gymnast to win the all-around gold medal at the Olympics, who said Penny had worked to strengthen athlete protections and personally reported abuse allegations to law enforcement.
Other former athletes have excoriated the organization, including Jessica Howard, a three-time national champion in rhythmic gymnastics who is one of the former athletes to accuse Nassar of abuse. Howard joined the USA Gymnastics board of directors in an effort to reform the system but said others in her position did not take the allegations seriously.
“The meetings seemed to revolve around two things: money and medals. When a sexual abuse case came up during my time on the board, the concern was about the reputation of the coach — not the accusation of the athlete,” Howard wrote in an Op-Ed in Wednesday’s New York Times. “As I have attempted to come to terms with what happened to me as a teenager, it has become glaringly obvious that USA Gymnastics has not done nearly enough to protect athletes from any form of abuse.”